The Roman Catholic Church is a huge “corporation,” ....
Wrong again. Neither as a legal, theological, nor practical matter is the Roman Catholic church viewed as a single corporation. I address this issue in my article The Bishop's Alter Ego.
Canon law views both a diocese and its individual parishes as distinct juridic persons. The commentary to Canon 393 thus provides that: “Once it has been legitimately erected, a diocese possesses juridic personality….” Likewise, per Canon 515, the parish “possesses juridic personality.” Just as the bishop represents the diocese in its juridic affairs, the parish priest represents the parish in all its juridic affairs.
In canon law, “ownership of goods belongs to that juridic person which has acquired them legitimately.” Accordingly, canon law views assets of a specific parish as being owned by the parish rather than the diocese. Assets of parishes and other public juridic persons within a diocese thus are ordinarily administered by the priest who governs the entity in question and not by the diocesan bishop.
As for secular law in the United States, the legal status of the Church varies. In some dioceses, there is a single corporation that holds all assets of the dioceses and its individual parishes. In others, however, there are many separate corporations, with each parish or other juridic person having been incorporated separately.
As such, the Church does not consist of a single corporation. There is no state in which there is a single corporation owning or representing the Church as a whole. There is no national corporation representing the Church in the United States. There is no single global entity comprising the Roman Catholic Church.
A rather trivial case will prove the point. In 1968, William Sheffield visited the ancient Hospice du Grand St. Bernard in Switzerland, a monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, a Roman Catholic religious order of priests. While in Switzerland, Sheffield contracted with the cleric in charge, Father Bernard Cretton, to buy a St. Bernard dog for $175 plus the $125 freight to ship the dog to Sheffield’s home in California. Sheffield was to pay the price in $20 installments and Cretton agreed to ship the dog upon receipt of the first $20.
Sheffield made three $20 payments, but the monastery refused either to ship a dog or to refund his money. Sheffield then sued in California state court for the price of his substitute dog ($200) and his non-refunded $60. In the suit, he named Cretton, the Canons Regular, the Vatican, the Pope, and the local archdiocese (in the person of then-presiding Archbishop of San Francisco). Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Superior Court, 93 CAL. RPTR. 338 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1971).
Although Sheffield apparently was able to serve process on and obtain personal jurisdiction with respect to the Archbishop of San Francisco, he faced significant obstacles in doing so with respect to both the Pope and the monastic defendants. In an attempt to circumvent those problems, Sheffield invoked the alter ego doctrine:
The complaint alleges that defendants Archbishop and the Canons Regular of St. Augustine were controlled and dominated by defendants Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome and the Holy See, that there exists a “unity of interest and ownership between all and each of the defendants,” that the Archbishop and the Canons Regular were a “mere shell and naked framework which defendants Roman Catholic Church, The Bishop of Rome, and The Holy See, have used and do now use as a mere conduit for the conduit of their ideas, business, property, and affairs,” and that all defendants are “alter egos” of each other.
The court rejected Sheffield’s argument, holding that the “uncontroverted” evidence that “the Archbishop had no dealings with the Canons Regular negates any possibility that the Archbishop so controlled and dominated that organization so as to be liable for its actions under the ‘alter ego’ doctrine.”
In other words, there is no global Roman Catholic corporation.
The point may seem trivial. But it has huge theological and legal import. It also stands as yet another example of how sloppy Judge Posner often is with facts, especially when it comes to religion.
I find Posner's sloppiness in this case amusing, because in his book Public Intellectuals he blasted public intellectuals for often doing sloppy work, which he called "little better than kibitzing" and which he said evidences "only a superficial engagement with the facts." Pot meet Kettle.
Yet, it's also troubling. Posner is a respected public intellectual, who musing are widely read. Yet, as Robert Araujo notes, Posner "offers little evidence demonstrating that he really understands religion, in general, and Catholicism, in particular." Regrettably, the uninformed reader may give Posner's ill-informed musing far more credence than they deserve.
Finally, it's worth pondering whether Posner's sloppiness reflects an underlying hostility. Posner once dismissed Catholic philosopher John Finnis' views of homosexuality as being "incomprehensible to the secular mind." (The Problematics Of Moral and Legal Theory at 76) Likewise, Posner dismissed the public square as a forum for social deliberation because it is tainted by religion: “Since so many Americans . . . are religious, and religious belief is a showstopper so far as public debate in our society is concerned, it is doubtful that deliberation over fundamental political goals and values is feasible outside our leading universities, the ethos of which is secular.”(Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy at 137) And then there's his claim that “[t]he combination in the United States of an extraordinarily high crime rate with an extraordinary degree of allegiance to Christian beliefs must make one question the pacifying effects of Christian zeal." (Sex and Reason at 235-36) These are not the words of someone friendly towards Catholicism or even of someone who is merely neutral.
In his essay Overcoming Posner (94 Mich. L. Rev. 1898), my former colleague Gerard Bradley complained of "Posner's recurring caricaturization of the Catholic Church when he should be engaging in counterarguments." Gerry also notes that "Posner squarely invites the reader to choose between religion ... and reality." Finally, Gerry catches Posner in yet another example of sloppiness with facts. Posner wrote that "Cardinal Bellarmine refused to look through Galileo's telescope at the moons of Jupiter, whose existence seemed to refute the orthodox view that the planets were fixed to the surface of crystalline spheres ...." As Gerry points out, however, "Posner is grotesquely wrong on the facts here. Bellarmine, a leading theologian of the day, was on friendly terms with Galileo. Bellarmine accepted Galileo's invitation to look through the telescope in April of 1611, and thanked Galileo for the opportunity." Yes, Galileo eventually got into trouble with the Church, but here again we see Posner evidencing "only a superficial engagement with the facts."
One wonders why Catholicism seems so often to be the victim of "a superficial engagement with the facts" in Posner's musings.